Synod to explore care of divorced, remarried

Two old friends were discussing their marriages. One man asked the other, “Do you still love your wife?”

The second man pondered a moment, then replied, “When people say ‘love’ they usually mean strong emotional attachment plus physical attraction, but that doesn’t do it in this case. My wife and I have bonded on a pretty deep level over the years, so that much of the time we’re like one person — reading each other’s minds, sharing the same thoughts and feelings, the same values and beliefs. Maybe that’s what loving someone gets to mean in the end.”

Pope Francis greets a couple during an audience for engaged couples in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. CNS photo

The first man said it was like that for him and his wife too.

Without intending it, they’d arrived at a working definition of the kind of natural unity that partners in successful marriages often achieve. Remarkable as that unity is, in a sacramental marriage the unity is something more — something supernatural — that finds classic expression in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church. ... Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her ... ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:21-32).

Downward trend

Many people today seem not to realize that this image of marriage even exists, much less see its relevance to their own marriages. An international gathering at the Vatican this fall will be attempting to decide what to do about that.

Convoked by Pope Francis and with assemblies scheduled this October and next, the synod represents an effort at the top levels of the Church not just to identify the problems facing marriage but, if possible, point to solutions. Pastoral care for people whose unions fall seriously short of the ideal — a category that includes divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled — will be discussed in that context.

The real-world background for the synod is visible in statistics from countries like the United States, where the number of households with unmarried couples of both sexes rose from 439,000 in 1960 to 6.5 million in 2009. Births to unmarried women now account for more than 40 percent of all U.S. births each year.

Catholics are hardly exempt from the crisis of marriage. According to numbers from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, in 1999, there were nearly 262,000 Catholics marriages in the U.S. and nearly 1 million infant baptisms. In 2013, the numbers were 154,000 marriages and 713,000 baptisms — a drop of 108,000 marriages and 284,000 baptisms annually. Meanwhile the estimated, self-identified Catholic population went up from 71.7 million to 76.7 million during that same time span.

What’s going on here?

Not long ago, a layman and a priest who is an official of his diocese’s tribunal were chatting when the priest remarked that the number of people seeking a decree of nullity — commonly called an annulment — from his tribunal was falling. (A tribunal is a Church court that handles marriage cases; an annulment is a judgment by a tribunal that an apparent marriage involving baptized persons wasn’t really a sacramental marriage.) The same thing was happening in other dioceses, he added.

The layman said he supposed that was good news.

“Not really,” said the priest. “It certainly doesn’t mean the incidence of marital breakup has declined; it only means fewer Catholics bother even to get married or to get married in the Church or to seek an annulment if it comes to that. Either they don’t get married at all or they don’t marry in the Church or, if they do, they don’t worry about an annulment if the marriage goes bad. They just split up, get a divorce and then very likely remarry or just cohabit.”

So much for good news. Here is the heart of the challenge to which the two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops that Pope Francis has convened in 2014 and 2015 must seek solutions.

Synod details

John Paul II published Familiaris Consortio after the last synod on the family. CNS photo

The first gathering, Oct. 5-19, will be an “extraordinary” synod assembly — that is, one outside the regular cycle of such meetings. It will bring together about 150 bishops who head national conferences of bishops around the world, patriarchs of Eastern Catholic churches, Vatican officials and 30 official observers, which will include married couples.

Its assignment is to specify the problems and identify approaches to solving them.

The second gathering, in October 2015, will be an “ordinary” assembly of the synod. Preceding it in late September will be the World Meeting of Families — Philadelphia 2015, which Pope Francis is likely to attend.

This second assembly will have about 250 participants, most of them elected delegates from the bishops’ conferences, with some others appointed by the pope and some Vatican officials. (The number of delegates from each conference is proportional to the number of its members.) As a consultative body, not a legislative one, its recommendations will go to Pope Francis.

The final stage of the process will be Pope Francis’ post-synod apostolic exhortation, a document summing up the synod’s thinking and adding his own thoughts. Although the Synod of Bishops was created by the Second Vatican Council as an instrument of collegiality — the participation of bishops with and under the pope in decision-making for the entire Church — in the end, it’s still the pope who gets the last word.

Issue of Communion

Lately Francis and synod officials like its secretary general, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, have stressed the comprehensive nature of the agenda. But it wasn’t always so. Earlier, the pope appeared to suggest that the question of giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled was tops on his list, and undoubtedly that issue will receive some attention in October.

The pros and cons of Communion for the divorced and remarried can only be understood in light of the Church’s teaching on the unity and permanence of sacramental marriage.

The traditional view has been expressed since the early centuries of Christianity by many Church councils and Fathers and Doctors of the Church. One of the clearest statements was by St. Augustine: “It belongs to the essence of this sacrament that, when man and wife are once united by marriage, this bond remains indissoluble throughout their lives.”

A millennium and a half later, Vatican Council II said this: “As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them” (Gaudium Et Spes, No. 48).

Thus the Church does not dissolve marriages. There is no Catholic divorce. Yet from early on, the Church has been making judicial decisions in marriage cases, with courts handling this work since at least the 12th century. An annulment, as noted, is a judgment that a sacramental marriage never existed from the start — perhaps because one or both parties were unable or unwilling to make a real commitment to indissolubility even though their apparent marriage had all the external trappings of a Church wedding.

But what about Catholics in second marriages who haven’t sought annulments or in some cases don’t qualify for them? The Church teaches that as long as their first marriages still exists or are presumed to exist, their second unions have the moral character of adulterous relationships; thus they can’t receive Communion unless willing to live without marital intimacy with their partners in what is called a “brother and sister” relationship.

After a synod on marriage and family that was held in 1980, Pope St. John Paul II — evidently thinking of the passage in Ephesians likening the union of husband and wife to the union of Christ and the Church — said the fundamental reason for this stand is that the situation of these divorced and remarried Catholics contradicts “that union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” Beyond that, he added, there’s concern that giving them Communion would lead to “error and confusion” about the indissolubility of marriage (Familiaris Consortio, No. 84).


Differing opinions

Last year, Pope Francis began hinting that a fresh look at this question in the context of another synod might be in order. His interest in the idea came to a head in February at a two-day meeting of the College of Cardinals held as part of the synod preparations.

Cardinal Walter Kasper
Cardinal Gerhard Müller

Leading off the discussion at the pope’s invitation was a two-hour presentation by Cardinal Walter Kasper, a prominent German theologian and former Vatican official who has advocated Communion for the divorced and remarried for the last three decades and who took this occasion to do it again. Pope Francis thanked him warmly for his remarks.

Cardinal Kasper suggested two approaches. The first, for which he showed little enthusiasm, was to streamline the annulment process. The second was simply to let these Catholics receive Communion provided they display “a desire for the sacraments as a source of strength.” This, the cardinal said, was “not the wide road of the masses, but rather the narrow path of what is probably the smaller segment of the divorced and remarried.”

Although the cardinals’ discussion that followed was closed, accounts of what happened suggested more than a little disagreement with the Kasper proposal by some. The months since then have witnessed a surprisingly vigorous public debate involving cardinals, bishops and theologians, with many expressing strong opposition to the idea.

Particularly outspoken in opposing the Kasper thesis has been another German theologian, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Francis, as noted, no longer seems to consider Communion for the divorced and remarried the synod’s topic No. 1.

Working document

But there’s no way of knowing in advance what will come out of the synod. The 50-page working document for this year’s assembly — it’s called an instrumentum laboris — suggests the possibility of an almost overwhelmingly broad agenda to try to cover in just two weeks.

The working document was made public in June. It is based on replies by bishops’ conferences, individual bishops and other individuals and groups to a questionnaire distributed by the Vatican late last year.

Taking a comprehensive view of the crisis of marriage and the difficulties it poses for the Church, the instrumentum laboris speaks of everything from Scripture study to family violence and same-sex marriage. It repeatedly stresses the need for better communication of Church doctrine and better marriage preparation.

A passage listing causes of the crisis suggests the very broad scope of the treatment. Long and heavy as it is, it’s worth quoting for what it tells about the mentality of a cross-section of bishops from many parts of the world reflecting on marriage today.

Citing absence of an “authentic Christian experience” as a fundamental reason why many families find it hard to accept the Church’s moral teaching, it proceeds to list such other factors as “the pervasive and invasive new technologies; the influence of the mass media; the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; the growing secularism; the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals; the fragility of interpersonal relationships; a culture which rejects making permanent choices ... a veritable ‘liquid society’ and one with a ‘throw away’ mentality and one seeking ‘immediate gratification’; and, finally, values reinforced by the so-called ‘culture of waste’ and a ‘culture of the moment,’ as frequently noted by Pope Francis” (Instrumentum Laboris, No. 15).

Everything but global warming, someone might say.


The document doesn’t indicate support for radical change in anything the Church does now, but only for doing more of it and doing it better. Its approach to pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics, including the Communion question, fits this pattern.

The document notes major geographical and cultural differences in this matter: “In Europe and across America, a very high number of persons are separated, divorced or divorced and remarried; the number is much lower in Africa and Asia. ... In addition, the responses note that the increasing number of people simply living together makes the problem of divorce less important. Fewer of these people are divorcing, because fewer tend to marry.”

As for the “rather great number” of divorced and remarried Catholics in Western countries, it says, many in fact “give no thought to their situation.” But for those who do, exclusion from the sacraments is deeply troubling — although not uncommonly they blame the Church. The instrumentum laboris does not advocate solving the problem by giving them Communion; instead it notes frequent suggestions to streamline the annulment process, although other respondents see risks.

The practical results of such streamlining can perhaps already be seen in the United States. In the late 1960s, there were only a few hundred U.S. annulments a year, but then new procedural norms were drafted and endorsed by the Canon Law Society of America, accepted by the national bishops’ conference and approved by the Holy See. By the late 1970s, annulment cases introduce in the United States numbered 30,000 annually. The number shot up to more than 72,000 in 1990 but by 2011 had dropped to 25,000, paralleling the decline in Catholic marriages noted above.

As to what form streamlining might take, the working document notes suggestions like a simpler, faster canonical process, giving local bishops more authority, using more lay people as judges, reducing the cost and making it discretionary whether to appeal tribunal decisions granting annulments to a higher level of the judicial process. Dealing with some cases of marriage breakdown via an administrative process rather than a judicial process is another possibility worth looking into, it says.

‘Cultural crisis’

Also badly needed, according to the instrumentum laboris, is better education of Catholics regarding the meaning of annulment — for example, by correcting the mistaken idea that annulling a marriage makes the children of that marriage illegitimate.

Bear in mind that the instrumentum laboris is not a controlling document nor even a set of proposals for debate and action. Once the synod discussions actually begin, the bishops can say what they want. Final recommendations won’t be forthcoming until October 2015, and the pope will have the last word. The bottom line is not yet in sight.

Meanwhile, an authoritative statement already exists showing how Francis views the crisis of marriage. It comes from Evangelii Gaudium, the apostolic exhortation he published in November, which as much as any document to date lays out the program of his pontificate.

In a section headed “Some Cultural Challenges,” the pope says, in part:

“The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis. ... Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born ‘of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life’” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 66).

Someone might say that’s what loving the person you marry gets to look like in the end.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Two Cardinals, Two Opinions
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian, was invited by Pope Francis to speak at the onset of a two-day meeting of the College in Cardinals in February, during which he suggested that the Church needs to find a way to be more compassionate to divorced and remarried Catholics, including making Communion available to them.